If the Lord has called you to a foreign field of service, it is important to learn the language of the land. You can’t very well tell people that you love them if you haven’t made the slightest attempt to learn their language, customs, culture, history, religion, characteristics, nationality traits, etc., which are all a part of them. You can hardly hope to understand them fully or reach them effectively without showing a genuine loving interest in who they are and what they’re like.
“We do not have a High Priest [Jesus] who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus took on the form of our own human flesh and suffered with us as one of us, that He might understand us and our problems better, have compassion on us, and even die for us. “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). He wore that frame Himself, suffered in it, and died in it for our sakes.
Jesus renounced His citizenship in Heaven, and though He was rich, for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). He not only adapted Himself to our bodily form, but also conformed to the human ways of life, custom, language, dress, and living, that He might understand and love us better, and communicate with us on the lowly level of our own human understanding.
He became a citizen of this world, a member of humanity, a man of flesh, in all points like us, in order that He might reach us with His love, prove to us His compassion and concern, and demonstrate His message in simple childlike terms that we could understand.
He not only preached His message, but He lived it amongst us, even as one of us. He was not only the living Word, the sermon, but He was also the living work, the sample.
This has always been part of the secret of success of all truly fruitful Christian workers: a genuine endeavor to identify with the people they were called to reach with the Gospel, and to be examples of God’s love, clear presentations of His message, in ways the people could understand. They learned the local language, adopted the local customs and dress, ate the local food, sometimes became citizens of their adopted land, and, above all, became one of them, as Jesus did.
Jesus not only ministered to people’s spiritual needs, but He spent a great deal of time ministering to their physical and material needs. He healed them when they were sick, fed them when they were hungry, and shared with them His life and love.
This is what we [the Family International] have tried to do. This is the way our work began, and this is the way it is continuing to this day. My family and I started by sharing all we had, both physically and spiritually, with other needy young people. I believe this is why the Lord was able to help us relate to them so well. We not only preached to them, but we also took them into our home. They lived with us, ate at our table, and enjoyed the same love, affection, material blessings, and spiritual instruction as our own children. That’s when they knew we truly loved them—when we took them into our personal lives, home, and family, and treated them as our own. There was really no difference, and that’s as it should be. If we truly believe that “all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), we will live that way.
If you really love the people God has called you to reach with the Gospel, you will become one of them. To go to a foreign field, to become one of the people and consider that your home and your people, as Ruth did with Naomi in the Bible’s book of Ruth, loving both the country and the people where you now live and wishing never to depart from them except by the will of God—to live with them, love them, be one of them, and never leave them—that’s my idea of a missionary. It’s a marriage. Forever. Why not? That’s what Jesus did!
And apparently that was God’s idea of a missionary too, for that’s what He sent His Son to do; that’s what Jesus did for us! God gave His only Son, and Jesus gave His life. He lived it just for us, with us, for us, as one of us, and died for us. How can we do less for others?
Only the supernatural, miracle-working power of the Holy Spirit can win people’s hearts, bring them to a decision, and cause them to be born again as new creations, new citizens of the Kingdom of God (John 3:3-6; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Only God can do this, but people must see Him doing it in us first of all. As Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) said, the only Bible the world reads is the one bound in shoe leather—you and me! They must see this miracle-working power at work in our own lives, as genuine living examples and proof that it can happen.
I am also convinced that what Jesus said is still true, regardless of nationality, country, color or creed: “And I, if I am lifted up … I will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32). There is no difference! The heart of man is the same the world over, and his heartaches and sorrows and sins and pains and fear of death are the same. His longing for love and hunger for God and His truth, for joy and happiness and peace of mind, are God-created and the same in people the world over.
We can’t do it, but God can! Even the most difficult to reach are no different from anyone else when it comes to the love and power of God and the truth of His Word. We’ve found the same message, the same method, the same love, the same life, the same power, the same salvation, the same Jesus, and the same God work just as well in any language and in any land with any people. His Word is just as true and just as powerful and just as moving, and His Spirit is just as great and omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and all-loving in one country as in another.
Nevertheless, as the apostle Paul said, we must become all things to all men in order that we might win some (1 Corinthians 9:19-22). So while the message and basic method remain the same, there are differences in approaches. It’s a matter of making our message understandable and our witness comprehensible and our lives interpretable in the terms, languages, and even gestures that they understand, and this may truly be more difficult in some cultures and languages and under certain conditions or in the face of certain taboos, oppositions, customs, backgrounds, ways of thinking, etc., than others.
We need to learn all we can about a people in order to communicate with them in a language they understand and ways they can relate to, so that they get the message loud and clear. However, as many missionaries have proven, we don’t have to wait to witness until we know everything. One famous missionary began with only two phrases in the native tongue: “I love you,” and “God loves you!”—And with these he started a mighty wave of Christian faith in that land. That was all he had to start with, but I’m sure that was not all he learned before he was through!
You need to learn the language, but that doesn’t mean you should spend most of your time in language study when you could be out witnessing. Sometimes you can learn and accomplish more by putting to use what little you have where it’s needed now, rather than waiting until you know as much as you think you need to before witnessing. While two missionaries I once knew were spending most of their time for two years learning Portuguese, the language of Brazil, their children learned more of the language out playing with Brazilian children, so that they had to act as interpreters for their parents.
For the greatest results, spend most of your time out witnessing as best you can by the miracle-working love, life, Spirit, music, and power of God. And never underestimate the power of literature in the local language. Most soldiers don’t understand how a bullet is made, and they don’t need to. All they need to know is how to fire the bullet. Literature in the language of the land can be “fired” by almost anyone.
So if God has called you to help reach a people who are not your own, learn all you can as quickly as you can in order to reach as many as you can as fast as you can, by becoming one with them!